The Failure of Facts

Rev. Dr. DeWayne L. Davis

This Week at Plymouth, April 19, 2024

Providing people with accurate information doesn’t seem to help; they simply discount it. Appealing to their emotions may work better.

—Elizabeth Kolbert

I recently listened to a podcast where the host welcomed a leading expert on disinformation to talk about the impact of propaganda and conspiracy in our culture and politics. Like so many others, my family has seen the tragic consequences of disinformation and conspiracy in the lives of our loved ones, especially relating to health and finances. But the scholar said something that shattered my optimism. He said emphatically that facts will not correct misinformation or dislodge conspiracy theories. Intellectually, what the expert said made sense, and I could follow the constructive ways he suggested for addressing disinformation and conspiracy theories. But I can’t ever recall feeling so discouraged and hopeless. How do we speak loudly and convincingly to counter disinformation?

As I explored my feelings of hopelessness, I realized how reliant I am on the conventional, romantic view that verifiable facts can lead people to the truth. It is the belief that if we humbly fact-check or provide correct information, people will willingly accept it and act accordingly. But what chance do we have against the relentless flow of disinformation and conspiracies if data and facts don’t work? The expert’s answer was simple and profound: the best way to counter the appeal of disinformation and conspiracy is to understand what people are looking for or care about and respond to that. People want to be heard, understood, and respected. When the way of the world doesn’t work for you, when your dignity and humanity are assaulted, when it is hard to make ends meet or make a decent living, even an untruth, misrepresentation, or a farfetched conspiracy may just be enough to assuage feelings of pain, suffering, or disappointment, if not tangibly change your situation.

Perhaps we’ve been relying on facts and data to do the work of community. Possibly, we have not understood that the presenting problem may be an embrace of disinformation and conspiracy, masking the cry for dignity, equity, and compassion. I think Jesus of the Gospels understood the needs of the people in his time. He responded to their need publicly and relentlessly, demonstrating that the status quo of neglect, oppression, and domination was not the expected or acceptable condition of God’s beloved. However, even Jesus’ followers and the Gospel writers understood that facts and data about imperial evil were not the most effective counter to its power. Instead, they testified that God’s presence and community’s power spoke to their deepest frustrations when the world couldn’t. They bore witness to God’s promises of love and liberation that addressed the people’s hunger for good news. In the proclamation that the reign of God had arrived, Jesus and his disciples offered oppressed peoples an alternative way of life that countered cynicism and hopelessness. When the facts failed, love and community prevailed.

 

The Courage to Say Something

Rev. Dr. DeWayne L. Davis

This Week at Plymouth, April 12, 2024

Whether at home or at work or within any of the arrangements that make up our existence, humans learn to banish our awareness of certain facts into a hidden compartment of the mind to make momentary peace with whomever we have to.

—David Dark, We Become What We Normalize

I attended a recent event where Senator Raphael Warnock, the first Black senator from the state of Georgia and the first Black Democrat elected from a former Confederate state, was the keynote speaker. Nearly twenty people mistook me for the senator, approaching me to take selfies and sign their programs. All night, I had to tell people I was not him. It would have been so much easier to go with the flow and avoid the discomfort of such an awkward encounter. Still, I committed to speaking honestly about the matter, which did not spare anyone their embarrassment. While the stakes were low for me in telling people they made a mistake, I’ve wondered how often we let little inaccuracies and misunderstandings go uncorrected or unaddressed to avoid and evade discomfort. How frequently does the pressure to keep the peace lead us to stifle our intuition, our voices, and our moral power in pursuit of change?

Given all that is currently rending the fabric of community, relationships, and the nation, silence may seem the best way to avoid and evade the worst of human behavior. David Dark describes this as deferential fear that silences our concerns, questions, and resistances about the status quo to “go along to get along.” It is a posture that leaves us relying on the symbolic or performative over tangible change, which signals to all the right people that we hold the correct belief or aspiration for change without making it. But when the stakes are high, when it comes to affirming and protecting the dignity and humanity of others, sometimes it is our courage and willingness to practice “the art of noncompliance,” the refusal to just let it go, that may be the best chance to effect needed change.

During the Easter season, I often think about the journey of Jesus’ disciples from fear to witness. Left to pick up where Jesus left off after his death and resurrection, the apostles, disciples, and followers of Jesus forged ahead to minister in a world that did not tolerate Jesus’ prophetic challenge to the status quo. The same imperial power that executed Jesus was still in control and was no less prepared to dispense with them as quickly as it did with Jesus. And yet, empowered by the Spirit of God, these followers of Jesus’ way overcame their fear, refusing to normalize the right of imperial power to dominate, oppress, and exploit. It would have been easier to go along quietly, but empowered by resurrection faith to “risky goodness and group courage,” they refused to adjust to the status quo and changed everything. Hallelujah!

 

Resurrecting Resurrection

Rev. Dr. DeWayne L. Davis

This Week at Plymouth, April 5, 2024

Every time [Jesus] came to his friends they became stronger, wiser, kinder, more daring. Every time he came to them, they became more like him.

—Barbara Brown Taylor

In the first few years of my return to church, I was reluctant to tell some of my friends and colleagues. Several of them had told me stories of spiritual abuse, religious bullying, and familial rejection instigated by fundamentalist pastors that they were still navigating and processing. I was worried that admitting that I was going back into the world of religion would be seen as a betrayal. I also feared becoming overzealous in trying to defend my search for meaning in a church, fielding questions about the unbelievable things in the Bible, like resurrection. It was that kind of religious zealotry that drove me away from church in the first place. Thankfully, none of my friends reacted this way. On the contrary, they were uniformly supportive. Why did I assume that faith had to be a source of division, separation, or estrangement from those who love me? Why isn’t something like the resurrection good news?

If resurrection is foundational to the Christian story, we wouldn’t know it by how the faithful engage with the broader world. We hear more often about the crucifixion, testimonies about Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross for humanity, than about God’s promise of life. The cross has become a ubiquitous fixture both culturally and religiously, and it is not uncommon to see someone who is not a practicing member of any religious collectivity sporting a necklace with a cross on it. But what about the resurrection? Because of the resurrection, everything has changed, and all things are new because death did not have the last word. But how many of us approach our faith, the world, and our friends shaped, inspired, and influenced by resurrection? Does that resurrection faith show up in how we act, love, serve, or treat our neighbor?

In her look at the resurrection appearances of Jesus to his disciples and followers in the Gospel stories, scholar and author Barbara Brown Taylor talks about the impact of resurrection on their lives and practices. Those who encountered the risen Jesus “became stronger, wiser, kinder, more daring.” For the biblical witnesses, resurrection became an effect, a practice, a confession, an experience that the world could see. Perhaps my fear of faith early on was a realization that resurrection faith had been far too muted in the church’s witness. Religious debates about Scripture, sexuality, sex and gender, and religious observances are loudly and endlessly rehearsed and argued, serving to divide the faithful and disinvite the seekers. Perhaps it’s time to show the world what resurrection means. How could God’s decisive act of vindication in the resurrection, a powerful assurance that God is faithful and just to bring life, not make us stronger, wiser, kinder, and more daring? I think it can if we let it.

Witnesses to the Persecution

Rev. Dr. DeWayne L. Davis

This Week at Plymouth, March 29, 2024

Can we . . . ‘redeem’ Good Friday in a way that affirms the interplay of divine love, human creativity, and human brokenness, while avoiding dubious theologies that assume salvation requires violence, including the predestined death of God’s only Child?

—Bruce Epperly

There was a time when I avoided Good Friday services. Not because I don’t think Jesus’ crucifixion plays a critical role in a fuller, more meaningful experience and understanding of Holy Week, especially as the foundational event in Jesus’ life and Christianity that makes his resurrection God’s earth-shattering, world-transforming act of vindication. Good Friday goes a long way in tempering the rush to Easter. But I sense an uneasiness with Good Friday services because I think progressive churches have become far too self-conscious about the uncomfortable biblical, theological, and liturgical baggage they carry. From odious substitutionary atonement theological constructs underpinning familiar hymns and prayers to the Gospel texts carelessly read and recited to stoke antisemitism, we may be tempted to skip the observance.

And yet, we must confront and address the reality of the crucifixion. Persecution thrives where there is silence, indifference, or accommodation to the forces of oppression, domination, and exploitation. And we can easily slip into justification of persecution when we accept it as a means of redemption. That was my problem with the movie The Passion of the Christ, Mel Gibson’s popular film about the crucifixion of Jesus, including the 12 hours before his death. The violence of Jesus’s crucifixion that it portrays is so graphic and prolonged that it appears to be the sole point of the movie, forcing us to look at it more as a spectacle served up to satisfy God’s demand for a sacrifice than violent persecution visited upon those who embody love and justice without compromise. In harmonizing very different accounts of the crucifixion of the Gospels, many churches (and Mel Gibson) rob us of a range of perspectives about Jesus’ death and responses to it that speak to our hunger for good news.

In the apparent silencing of Jesus, in the belief that they had thwarted the in-breaking of the reign of God, the forces of empire felt vindicated that they had secured business as usual against an insurgency of love, liberation, and neighborliness. It is fitting that we take the opportunity to grieve and suffer in recalling and remembering the story of Jesus’ betrayal, arrest, trial, crucifixion, and death. In doing so, we take on the responsibility of bearing witness to the persecution of so many in our own time and testifying in response to Jesus’ final words that life is sacred. Unlike Jesus’ followers at the time, we stand in solidarity with Jesus and the persecuted in every age during their trials. It may cause us to tremble and remember the costliness of persecution, but we also recognize our responsibility to join God in healing, saving, and renewing in response to it. Amen.

 

It’s Happening to All of Us

Rev. Dr. DeWayne L. Davis

This Week at Plymouth, March 22, 2024

Whatever has happened to humanity, whatever is currently happening to humanity, it is happening to all of us. No matter how hidden the cruelty, no matter how far off the screams of pain and terror, we live in one world. We are one people.

—Alice Walker, Overcoming Speechlessness

I recall two times when denying one’s humanity shook my sense of safety and belonging. The first time came when my family gathered around the television to watch the miniseries Roots and the news coverage surrounding it. It was the first portrayal I ever saw of the horrors perpetrated upon Black bodies. I was young, so a lot of what happened in the movie and what people said about it on the news went over my head, but I do remember thinking, “Wow, white people do not like us.” The second time came with the attack on Matthew Shephard, a gay college student in Wyoming who was left to die tied to a split rail fence. At a rally at the U.S. Capitol where survivors of anti-gay violence told their stories, I remember thinking, “Wow, straight people do not like us.” The lesson was that humans do horrible things to other humans.

I have read Rev. Martin Luther King’s words many times: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” But watching how humans hate, harm, and kill other human beings made those words seem solely aspirational, untethered from the reality and banality of war, violence, and persecution. And yet, in the context of church life, worshiping, discerning, and sharing as a gathered community, I’ve discovered the meaning of connection to others and affirmation of humanity. Looking back on those feelings of disconnection because of race and sexuality, I now know I was experiencing loss and diminishment because of the behaviors of others. As Alice Walker described it, “no matter how far off the screams of pain and terror,” it was happening to me. Something in my young mind understood the impact on humanity of hate and violence because, in those moments, far removed from the actual offense, I felt it.

Despite humanity’s inhumanity, the idea of us being all one people resonates with me. Perhaps it has something to do with the bigness and mystery of creation. Or the belief that all of humanity bears the image of God. Or the witness to how the poisons of war, hate, and violence harm both victims and perpetrators. Or the suspicion that we inhabit a moral universe in which the law of God is perfect, the decrees of God are true, the precepts of God are right, and the commandment of God is clear (Psalm 19). What is happening to the people in Gaza, Ukraine, Haiti, Israel, and anywhere else who cry out in pain and suffering is happening to us. We must care for all of us.

 

To Dream of Better Things

Rev. Dr. DeWayne L. Davis

This Week at Plymouth, March 15, 2024

We must do all we can to imagine the Other before we presume to solve the problems work and life demand of us . . . What would it be like to live in a world where the solution of serious, learned people to practically every big problem was not to kill somebody?”

—Toni Morrison

In her recent book on the life and relationship of civil rights heroes Medgar and Myrlie Evers, journalist Joy-Ann Reid recounted Medgar Evers’ work with Clyde Kennard. Kennard was a Korean War veteran who, after returning to Mississippi to take care of his mother, decided to apply to the segregated Mississippi Southern College to complete his education. The retaliation was swift. Files from the white supremacist, pro-segregation organization the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission reveal a coordinated campaign to frame and charge Kennard for a series of crimes, including possession of alcohol in a dry state and theft of $25 worth of chicken feed from a farm co-op warehouse. It took an all-white jury 10 minutes to return a guilty verdict. Sentenced to 7 years in the deadly maximum security Parchman Penitentiary, Kennard could not apply to any college in Mississippi and was diagnosed with cancer soon after being remanded to prison. I’m not naïve, but it still stuns me how serious, learned people, with a range of possible options and responses at their disposal, indulge their diabolical imagination to destroy and kill. Unable to see the humanity of an Other, they chose to kill.

In a commencement address at Sarah Lawrence College in 1988, the author Toni Morrison invited the graduates to pause on pursuing personal happiness, which has overwhelmingly become synonymous with money, power, protection, and possessions. Instead, she asked them to dream. She saw dreaming as a “preamble to problem-solving,” whereby we visualize the needs, concerns, and experiences of the Other, those who are unlike us or less fortunate than us, whose precarity is usually addressed (or unaddressed) by benign neglect or plausibly denied death. It is possible to feed the hungry, house those who need shelter, or provide livable wages to workers if we allow our dreams for a better, safer, more neighborly existence for all to influence our living.

As Morrison convincingly articulated, “Dreaming is not irresponsible; it is first-order human business.” I think the Apostle Paul understood the possibilities that unfold for those who are willing to reject the dehumanizing conventional paradigms of state and community relations: “Do not be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewing of the mind, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2). Intrinsic to the covenant relationship with a gracious, merciful God is the ethical response to the needs of our neighbors. We are empowered to embrace an ethic of care, which begins with a vision of the humanity of the Other, a dream of better things.

 

What Does It Mean to Trust God? Part 1

Rev. Dr. DeWayne L. Davis

This Week at Plymouth, March 8, 2024

I’ve found a Friend, who is all to me.

—Jack P. Scholfield, Saved, Saved!

I love the Lord because he has heard my voice and my supplications.

—Psalm 116:1

Last Sunday, at the end of the group discussion before worship, I concluded a presentation of my spiritual and theological autobiography by saying that I am confident in my life, journey, and ministry because I trust God. I have said something like this many times before. But after this time, someone said they would love to hear a sermon about trusting God. For the last few days, I’ve been asking myself how to elaborate on what it means to trust in God that is accessible and practical. How can I explain what is happening to me that I characterize it as trust in God? So, this is my first attempt (and it won’t be my last) to explain trusting God that doesn’t sound like a platitude or devolves into an exercise in apologetics.

There was a time when God was, for me, only a means to an end. A relationship with God was all about getting to heaven or receiving abundant blessings (most often material). When I left the church, I was able to let go of the image of God as an instrument for personal salvation or prosperity. However, when I returned to church after years of avoiding it, I found myself in the presence of a God that promised none of those “rewards.” It was a presence that required nothing more of me than just to be. It was a calming, non-anxious presence, intrinsic to what scripture and tradition have testified about God, that was with me when the church was frightening and unreliable. Unfortunately, the language, analogies, and metaphors I use to describe that presence are clumsy and imprecise. Still, using the biblical witness, I can give words to the characteristics that made God’s presence actual and consequential.

The biblical witness testifies to God’s character through the stories and experiences of the people of Israel and the followers of Jesus. Love, liberation, and community flow from God’s will, promise, and character. They are the gifts I rely on now. I trust the power of love, liberation, and community. If I experience pain, loss, sadness, or despair, I trust that I will be held and supported by a community that loves me and provides me with a safe place to heal and recover. If and when I am sick, I know that a community that loves me and gathers around me will secure my well-being by responding to my needs. Whatever failure, disappointment, or vicissitudes of life befall me, I do not fear them. God’s presence means that love, liberation, and community will minister to me when I’m at my lowest. That’s the closest I can get to what God looks like, and I trust it. To be continued.

 

Making Time for Beauty and Gratitude

Rev. Dr. DeWayne L. Davis

This Week at Plymouth, March 1, 2024

Grant us habits of sacred pause. Let us marvel not just as the grand or majestic, but beauty’s named etched into every ordinary moment.

—Cole Arthur Riley, Black Liturgies

Recently, when I was listening to a satellite radio program dedicated to political news, commentary, and analysis, one of the hosts departed from the usual fare to discuss the importance of experiencing beauty and gratitude during this political season. It struck a dissonant note for me, but not because I don’t believe it. And it wasn’t different from anything I’ve said many times in church or written in articles because I know the blessing of beauty and gratitude during difficult times. But that invitation to take time for beauty and gratitude surprised me because I had come to accept that we have been unable or unwilling to let such lofty pursuits and attributes have a place in our politics. Perhaps more intentional articulations of gratitude and engagement with art, music, and literature are just what we need amid our political fights and competition.

Yes, the urgency of the political moment and the stress under which our social, economic, and political life is strained calls for sober, serious discussion about the future of our democracy. Some will despair that such pursuits can be a distraction when what is called for is sustained organizing, protests, and resistance in pursuit of justice. And yet, we know that we need to feed and nurture our souls to endure and overcome the stresses of life. In a prayer with the superscript “For Beauty in the Mundane,” writer and poet Cole Arthur Riley invites us to a “sacred pause” to find beauty in the ordinary. Taking time for beauty and gratitude is not a waste or a distraction but an opportunity to tap into an enduring blessing that our political problems or disappointments can impede. We can have beauty as the antidote to despair and sacred pause as a cooling salve to anxious busyness.

I recall the closing remarks of the Apostle Paul to the church in Philippi. After he had earlier encouraged the saints to be careful about selfish ambition, look out for the interests of others, and be joyful and gentle, he invites them to the pursuit of good, beauty, and gratitude: “Brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (4:8). I pray that we never let our political and economic differences, challenges, and disappointments cause us to lose sight of the beauty and blessings we enjoy. I pray that we do not draw so rigid a line between what we perceive to be sacred and profane that we miss out on the Divine presence in ordinary people and moments. Take that sacred pause and see the beauty of God’s creation. Amen.

Caring as a Lenten Practice

Rev. Dr. DeWayne L. Davis

This Week at Plymouth, February 23, 2024

We need to develop a sense of caring for each other and for ourselves. . . . Developing caring relationships, an ethic of care, is a key social ingredient in resisting the multiple ways we fracture ourselves and cease being and living as brothers and sisters.

—Emilie Townes

Over the last few years, I have reflected on how my parents ministered in a world surrounded by poverty. For a long time, I mistakenly attributed their hope and compassion solely to a rigid adherence to their Pentecostal faith and the promise of life everlasting in heaven. But recently, when recounting to others their acts of service and justice to people living in poverty, I noticed that what I was describing was their ethic of care. Yes, the people in the church of my youth lived in eschatological hope for the Day of the Lord, but something within called them to take care of each other. I do not recall my parents ever articulating what they were doing, but they lived by a system that placed moral value on tending to their neighbors’ spiritual and material needs. They never associated the good life with the accumulation of material things, such as wealth, power, and property. Wholeness was spiritual and physical.

The political scientist Joan Tronto maintains that we are experiencing a caring deficit in every facet of life in the United States, neglecting care for others in political and economic life and fragmenting care responsibilities such that those with the least resources shoulder a disproportionate share of the burden to help others. Author and critic bell hooks wondered if the failure to care for those wrestling with disappointment, disillusionment, and spiritual malaise prompted preoccupation with amassing power and wealth accumulation. It appears that far too many have concluded that if spiritual or moral well-being is unattainable, perhaps material success is a better way to measure well-being. Are we numbing ourselves with a surfeit of possessions and activities while we become more disconnected and distrustful of each other? Perhaps now more than ever, the times call for a new covenant and commitment to caring for each other and tending to our neighbors’ spiritual and material needs.

Tronto provides an expansive definition of caring, describing it as “everything we do to maintain, continue, and repair our ‘world’ so that we can live in it as well as possible.” I like the sound of that. We have chosen as our Lenten theme, “Repair and Renewal: Embracing an Ethic of Care,” which invites us to consider ways to eliminate our nation’s caring deficit and become agents of repair and renewal. I pray that we embrace an ethic of care, a broader, more expansive understanding of ourselves and caregiving in which the spirit and body are not binary constructs for tending to the needs of others. We make caring for the whole person our Lenten practice for the season. May it be so.

A Time for Sustained Commitment

Rev. Dr. DeWayne L. Davis

This Week at Plymouth, February 16, 2024

Support can be occasional. It can be given and just as easily withdrawn. Solidarity requires sustained, ongoing commitment.

—bell hooks

As a teenager, I enjoyed popular teen romantic comedies like Sixteen Candles, Pretty in Pink, and Some Kind of Wonderful. These films always featured a romantic connection between a low-income, often unknown or unpopular kid and a wealthy, quite popular kid. While the romance starts beautifully, and each falls more deeply in love, the rich kid would inevitably have to confront that their love for the other will be viewed as a betrayal of their social standing. If they want to be with the one they truly love, they must let go of the security of being a part of the in-crowd and having status. They, of course, do not have to give up their riches; they have to give up an identity that assumes there can be no relationship with someone of a lower socio-economic status. I was always comforted when the lovers committed to staying together or finding true love from an unexpected one who had been there all along. They may not have the security of their respective communities anymore, but they come together across their differences to build relationships.

As we enter into another U.S. presidential campaign year, I’ve been thinking about what solidarity and allyship with the most vulnerable among us will look like as attacks on our democracy become more frequent and radicalized citizens indulge their worst instincts of hate and violence. When a candidate for the highest office in the land refers to migrants and immigrants as “disease-ridden terrorists and psychiatric patients poisoning the blood of our country,” we’ve been put on notice that many of the communities with whom we seek to be in a relationship will be targeted and attacked. Will we stay committed to those on the margins? We are entering a time that calls for a sustained commitment to justice and a beloved community.

Unfortunately, we have seen many segments of the Christian family of denominations seeking to gain political and economic power ostensibly to usher in the reign of God. We have seen religious leaders accepting the world’s definition of greatness through wealth and power. Some followers of the way have embraced the world’s drive for power and have joined the forces of illiberalism and authoritarianism to secure their status. And yet, the best of the Christian tradition is found in Jesus’ pronouncement of blessings on the meek and the merciful, the peacemakers and the pure in heart, the meek and the poor in spirit, and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Our power comes not from what we find in the world’s treasures but from our call to be salt of the earth and light of the world. Now is the time for a sustained commitment to God’s reign of love, solidarity, and beloved community. Amen.